Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we profess,

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.... And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.

What a wonderful expression of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God! The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation."

The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless -- and therefore deathless -- Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this Paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As Saint Paul writes, "He Who descended is He Who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things" (Ephesians 4:10). The One Who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ Who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ.

As Saint Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught,

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, Saint Paul can further write, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith.

Saint Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.
It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

The Great Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. 

By the time we reach the end of the special forty days of Pascha, a certain fatigue has set in, and the initial explosion of joy that characterized Pascha seems already like a dim memory (though experienced only forty days ago!). But is it possible for the Feast of the Lord's glorious Ascension to awaken us yet again to the great joy of our salvation and destiny in Christ?

We believe that we are not orphans in a universe devoid of meaning, but actually children of God, "who were born, not of blood nor the will of man, but of God" (JN. 1:13).  In his First Epistle, St. John further elaborates on this: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (I JN. 3:2).

We do not know "when" that will be, only that God will fulfill His promises already revealed in the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'The decisive moment in the history of the world...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Thirty-Ninth Day

"The instant of the Resurrection was the decisive moment in the history of the world. It was the event of deepest importance for every human being who ever lived. It was the supreme kairos, the definitive 'day of the Lord'. The Law and the Prophets were fulfilled in that moment, and the existence of the human race took on a radically new meaning."

- From The Jesus We Missed by Patrick Henry Reardon

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Two Icons of the Resurrection, and the Destruction of Death

Dear Parish Faithful,

As the paschal season draws to a close, here is a meditation that summarizes our over-all theological and iconographic understanding of the great paschal mystery:

The Two Icons of the Resurrection, and the Destruction of Death


The souls bound in the chains of hades, O Christ, seeing Thy compassion without measure, pressed onward to the light with joyful steps, praising the eternal pascha.
(Matins, Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus)

The awesome mystery of the Lord’s bodily resurrection from the dead was providentially kept hidden from human eyes. Although there were many eyewitnesses to the Resurrected One, there were none of the actual “moment” of the resurrection. There was no access to the tomb until the stone had been rolled away and its emptiness was revealed to the myrrhbearing women. The emptiness of the tomb was a “sign” of the resurrection of Christ; while the angelic voice – “He has risen, he is not here” – was the first announcement of the Gospel of the Risen Lord, thus interpreting the sign. The Lord then appeared to both the myrrhbearing women and the disciples, fully affirming the meaning of the empty tomb and the angelic proclamation. Yet, to repeat, the “moment” of the resurrection remains inaccessible to human perception.

For this reason, artistic depictions of Christ emerging from the tomb, banner in hand, rising in a blinding light over the hapless and sprawling bodies of the guard, are “later” and inauthentic images of the resurrection, though they contain the truth that the “Lord has risen indeed!” In the Western artistic tradition, the most famous of such depictions is probably that of Matthias Grunewald. Such images have also become popular in Orthodox iconography over the centuries, as seen on processional banners, portable icons and walls. Once such images enter the Church, they stubbornly refuse to leave!

There do exist two authentic icons of the Resurrection, one being of a more historical nature and the other theological. The historical icon of the Resurrection is that of the myrrhbearing women gazing in wonder at the empty grave cloths of Christ lying in the tomb while an angel (or two) is further depicted sitting inside the tomb as recorded in the Gospels. This icon captures the startling moment when the myrrhbearers are overcome with “fear and trembling” together with wonder and concern at not seeing the body of the Lord in the tomb.

The theological icon simply entitled the “Anastasis” or “Resurrection,” is also referred to as the “Descent Into Hades.” Here the victorious Christ, resplendent in white garments, Cross in hand, is depicted shattering the gates of the biblical realm of the dead (sheol in Hebrew; hades in Greek; often, though imprecisely, translated as “Hell”) decisively and forcefully grabbing Adam and Eve – representative of humanity and the righteous awaiting deliverance (cf. HEB. 11:39-40) – by the hand and pulling them out of this darkened realm restored to fellowship with God. As iconography and hymnography complement one another, a paschal hymn from the Vespers of Holy Saturday illuminates the meaning of this powerful icon:

Today Hell cries our groaning:
My power has been trampled upon.
The Shepherd is crucified and Adam is raised.
I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.
Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up.
He who was crucified has emptied the tombs.
The power of death has been vanquished.
Glory to Thy Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.

The Fathers found a clear allusion of this descent into hades in a passage from I Peter:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey … For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (I PETER 3:18-4:6)

Surprisingly, however, the main source for this icon appears to be the 2nd c. apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Here we find a dramatic and rather humanly touching description of this profound theological truth:

And behold, suddenly Hades trembled, and the gates of death and the bolts were shattered, and the iron bars were broken and fell to the ground, and everything was laid open … Then the Lord Jesus, the Savior of all, affectionate and most mild saluting Adam kindly, said to him: “Peace be to you, Adam, with your children, through immeasurable ages to ages!” Amen.
Then father Adam, falling forward at the feet of the Lord, and being raised erect, kissed his hands, and shed many tears, saying, testifying to all: “Behold, the hands which fashioned me!” And he said to the Lord: “You have come, O King of glory, delivering men, and bringing them into Your everlasting Kingdom.”
Then also our mother Eve in like manner fell forward at the feet of the Lord, and was raised erect, and kissed His hands, and poured forth tears in abundance, and said, testifying to all: “Behold the hands which made me!”

In other words, “Death’s dominion has been shattered.” Can Christianity survive without this being the ultimate “Good News:”

That through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (HEB. 2:14-15)

What of the non-resurrected Christ emerging from certain biblical scholars and other circles now demanding equal time in the popular press and visual media? Is this even remotely consistent with the full content of the New Testament? Does such a “Christ” truly inspire and offer hope to the hopeless? I would answer my own questions with decisive “NO!” 

However, the apostle Paul reminds us that: “all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (II COR. 1:20) This 'Yes' seems fully convincing when we acknowledge Christ as:

… the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings of the earth.


Friday, May 11, 2018

'This victory began on the night of the Resurrection'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen! 
Indeed He is Risen!

“If we ask ourselves once again what the essence of Christianity is, we must give the following answer: it is God manhood; that is, the union of the human spirit, which is finite and limited in time, with the divine, which is infinite. It is the sanctification of the flesh from the moment the Son of Man adopted our joys and sufferings: that which we construct, our love, our work, nature, the world in which He found Himself and in which He was born as man and as God-Man.

"None of that is rejected; nothing is humiliated. It is rather raised to a new level. In Christianity the world is sanctified: evil, darkness, and sin are vanquished. This is God’s victory. This victory began on the night of the Resurrection, and it will continue as long as the world exists.”

The quote above was Fr. Alexander’s last public words before he was brutally murdered while on his way to church (1990's).

Excerpt is taken from the book - Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia.

'A genuinely blameless Christian death...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Attached, you will find a short but remarkable account of the last days of Fr. Roman Braga, a genuine (Romanian) "elder" who lived, served and taught at the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI. Dr. Dan Henshaw has left a moving reflection of how he ministered to Fr. Roman over what was essentially the "dying process" that Fr. Roman passed through at the end of his life. (It is now the third anniversary of Fr. Roman's death). 

We encounter not only a "good death," but a genuinely blameless Christian death that Fr. Roman embraced with faith, humility and powerful prayer. 

Again, I highly recommend that everyone read this short account, for there is more in these few short pages than in many theological treatises, spiritual reflections, etc.

Fr. Steven

Monday, May 7, 2018

Rivers of Living Water

Dear Parish Faithful,


So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city…” [John 4:28].

A Samaritan woman came to Jacob’s Well in Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the same time that Jesus sat down by the well, being wearied by His journey [John 4:5]. The evangelist John provides us with a time reference: “It was about the sixth hour” [John 4:6] - i.e. noon. The Samaritan woman had come to draw water from the well, a trip and activity that must have been an unquestioned daily routine that was part of life for her and her fellow city-dwellers.

The ancients had a much more active sense of equating water with life than we do today with the accessibility of water from the kitchen tap, the shower, or the local store. On the basic level of biological survival, Jacob’s Well must have been something like a “fountain of life” for the inhabitants of Sychar.

Therefore, it is rather incredible that she returned home without her water jar, a “detail” that the evangelist realized was so rich in symbolic meaning that he included it in the narrative recorded in his Gospel [John 4:5-42]. And this narrative, together with the incredible dialogue embedded in it, is so profound that every year we appoint this passage to be proclaimed in the Church on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Fifth Sunday after Pascha. Why, then, would the Samaritan woman fail to take her water jar home with her?

Her “failure” was based on a discovery that she made when she encountered and spoke with Jesus by Jacob’s Well. For even though the disciples “marveled” that Jesus was speaking with a woman [v. 27], Jesus Himself began the dialogue with the woman perfectly free of any such social, cultural or even religious restraints.

As this unlikely dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded by the well, it was revealed to the woman that Jesus was offering her a “living water” that was qualitatively distinct from the well-water that she habitually drank [v. 11]. This “living water” had an absolutely unique quality to it that the Lord further revealed to the woman:

Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [v. 13-14].

A perceptive and sensitive woman who was open to the words of Jesus, she responded with the clear indication that she had entered upon a process of discovery that would lead her to realize that she was speaking with someone who was a prophet—and more than a prophet: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” [v. 15].

Her thirst is now apparent on more than one level, as her mind and heart are now opening up to a spiritual thirst that was hidden but now stimulated by the presence and words of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus will now disclose to her one of the great revelations of the entire New Testament, a revelation that will bring together Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles:

“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” [v. 23-24].

A careful reading of Saint John’s Gospel indicates that under the image of water, Jesus was speaking of His teaching that has come from God, or more specifically, to the gift of the Holy Spirit. For at the Feast of Tabernacles, as recorded in John 7, Jesus says this openly to the crowds that had come to celebrate the feast:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water." Now this He said about the Spirit, Whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified [John 7:37-39].

Overwhelmed and excited, inspired and filled with the stirrings of a life-changing encounter, the Samaritan woman “left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, ‘Come and see a man Who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” [v. 28-29].

It is not that the contents of her water jar was now unimportant or meaningless. That would be a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual that is foreign to the Gospel. The Samaritan woman will eventually retrieve her forgotten water jar and fill it with simple water in fulfillment of her basic human needs. For the moment, however, she must go to her fellow city-dwellers and witness to Christ! They, in turn, will eventually believe that Jesus is “indeed the Savior of the world” [v. 42]. Thus, the Samaritan woman became something of a proto-evangelist. Subsequent tradition tells us that she is the Martyr Photini.

There are indeed innumerable “wells” that we can go to in order to drink some “water” that promises to quench our thirst. These “wells” can represent every conceivable ideology, theory, philosophy of life, or worldview—in addition to all of the superficial distractions, pleasures, and mind-numbing attractions that offer some relief from the challenges and oppressive demands of life.

For a Christian, to be tempted to drink the water from such wells would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of both the baptismal waters that were both a tomb and womb for us; and a betrayal of the living water that we receive from the teaching of Christ and that leads to eternal life. It is best to leave our “water jars” behind at such wells, and drink only that “living water” that is nothing less than the “gift of God” [John 4:10].

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fellow Students of 'Christian Mysticism'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Twenty-Sixth Day

One of my students at XU in my "Christian Mysticism" class chose to write his final paper on St. Augustine of Hippo. While quoting St. Augustine, he chose three particularly insightful texts that I would like to share. The first is very "paschal" in its emphasis on the contrast between mortality and immortality; while the other two are simply wonderful and justifiably famous words from the saint:

"We made bad use of immortality, and so ended up dying; Christ made good use of mortality, so that we might end up living." 
"Christ is not valued at all, unless he is valued above all."

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

For his final exam essay, another student chose to answer the broad question, "What is Christian mysticism?" The point was to get my students to synthesize what they learned through the course of the semester and put that in coherent terms as an essay.

Since most of my students could not adequately answer this question at the beginning of the semester, I thought that it would prove both challenging and interesting to read what they wrote after sixteen weeks with the subject. Be that as it may, one of the requirements for this question was that the student had to support his/her answer with at least there direct quotations from the course's primary text, The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement. This is the book that we read and studied together in last Fall's Adult Education Class.

So, here are the three quotations from the book that this particular student chose to include. All three are from the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement (+2008). No commentary on my part, just three deep thoughts that are worthy of meditation, or deep and hard thinking:

"God remains a beggar who waits at each person's gate with infinite patience, begging for his love. His silence, with which we sometimes reproach Him, only shows His consideration."

"God offers Himself, wishes to disclose Himself, but He does not force us. His power is the power of love, and love wants freedom from the beloved. God speaks and at the same time keeps silence; He knocks at the door and waits."

"The inaccessible God reveals Himself as the Crucified. He is by that very fact a hidden and incomprehensible God, who upsets our definitions and expectations."

Monday, April 30, 2018

'Do you want to be healed?'

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (JN 5:6)

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John - read yesterday during the Liturgy for the Fourth Sunday of Pascha - we find the account of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse that follows. Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool, demonstrating the accuracy of Saint John’s description.

The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” [verse 3]. Being there for 38 years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny.

Then Jesus appeared. He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight. Jesus then asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” [verse 6].

Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” [verse 7].

Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” [verse 9]. The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?” (The King James version of the question is: “Wilt thou be made whole?”) For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being, then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.

If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity. But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives?

The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case? Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors?

Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side? Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing.

Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the non-committal response of the paralytic. For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships. It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment. Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed. That happened when we were baptized into Christ. (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).

Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created. Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us. We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death. For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply: Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you? Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?

Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives. We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions. Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ, “Do you want to be healed?” Responding with a resounding “Yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The 'Apostles to the Apostles'

Dear Parish Faithful,


We are in the week of the Myrrh-bearing Women, as we extend last Sunday's commemoration of these extraordinary women throughout the entirety of this week. At all the Vespers and Matins services for this week, the Church will sing and chant primarily about the myrrh bearing women and their role as apostolic witnesses, implying their role as "apostles to the apostles." 

Their eyewitness testimony of both the empty tomb and the Risen Lord continues to amaze me, and I can only imagine the excitement and intense response with which this testimony must have been greeted when they shared their experience with the other members of the earliest Christian communities. Their timeless witness is with us until "the end of the world." As the New Testament scholar, Richard Baukham writes:

"These women, I think we can say, acted as apostolic eyewitness guarantors of the traditions about Jesus, especially his resurrection but no doubt also in other respects. As we have seen, that their witness acquires textual form in the Gospels implies that it can never have been regarded as superseded or unimportant. For as long as these women were alive their witness, 'We have seen the Lord,' carried the authority of those the Lord himself commissioned to witness to his resurrection.... 
"They were well-known figures and there were a large number of them. They surely continued to be active traditioners whose recognized eyewitness authority could act as a touchstone to guarantee the traditions as others relayed them and to protect the traditions from inauthentic developments." (Gospel Women, p. 295)

If "fear and trembling seized them" when they departed from the empty tomb (MK 16:8), perhaps in our more focused moments we, too, can experience that same "fear and trembling" when we again read or listen to St. Mark's account in the Gospel.

There is something unforgettable and awe-inspiring about that ever-memorable morning when the sun was just rising and the stone to the tomb had been rolled away; followed then by the appearance of the "young man" dressed in "white robes" announcing:

"Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him." (MK. 16:8). 

The angel understood their amazement, because the women sensed the numinous presence of God filling that empty tomb with an other-worldly reality. Their own disorientation at this unexpected turn of events when they left the tomb is probably behind their initial silence. (This does not mean that the women failed to fulfill the command of the angel to tell the disciples that they would see Jesus in Galilee. It probably means that they did not share this news with others until the time the risen Christ appeared to His disciples confirming the proclamation of the angel that He had indeed risen).

We, in turn, have to always guard against over-familiarity dulling our response to the Good News of Christ's Resurrection from the dead. This is not a message to be nonchalant about! The Resurrection has changed the world and certainly change the lives of Christian believers. And we, too, are "witnesses of these things" (Lk 24:48).

The role of the Myrrh-bearing Women has always been treated with great respect and recognition within the Church. In one of our most beloved paschal hymns, "Let God Arise," two of the stanzas are dedicated to the myrrh-bearers and their witness. These hymns build upon the scriptural accounts of their visit to and discovery of the empty tomb, poetically developing those terse scriptural verses in a more embellished manner that weaves together a host of scriptural messianic images together with the Gospel accounts:

Come from that scene, O women,
bearers of glad tidings,
And say to Zion:
Receive from us the glad tidings of joy,
of Christ's resurrection.
Exult and be glad,
And rejoice, O Jerusalem,
Seeing Christ the King,
Who comes forth from the tomb like a
bridegroom in procession.
The myrrh-bearing women,
At the break of dawn,
Drew near to the tomb of the
There they found an angel sitting upon
the stone.
He greeted them with these words:
Why do you seek the living among the
Why do you mourn the incorrupt amid
Go, proclaim the glad tidings to His

As an aside of sorts, when listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture," I always feel that he musically captures the excitement and energy of the myrrh-bearers discovering the empty tomb.

The myrrh-bearing women did not mysteriously disappear following the Resurrection of Christ.There were many of them, and we have the names or a reference to at least the following:

  • Mary Magdalene, 
  • Mary the mother of Joseph the Little and Jose, 
  • Salome, 
  • Mary of Clopas, 
  • Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, 
  • Susanna, 
  • and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. 

And, of course, the "mother of Jesus," as she is referred to by the Evangelist John (19:25), was at the foot of the Cross. They must have shared their experience innumerable times, and their credibility is what lies behind their inclusion in the Gospels. They must have therefore been very prominent figures in the apostolic era of the Church.

I would again stress their presence in the liturgical services of Pascha. Their presence permeates these services as the empty tomb is always an object of pious and reverential celebration:

Before the dawn, Mary and the women came
and found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
They heard the angelic voice: "Why do you
seek among the dead as a man the one who is
everlasting light? Behold the clothes in the grave.
Go and proclaim to the world: The Lord is risen.
He has slain death, as He is the Son of God, saving
the race of men." (Hypakoe)

To again include a fine summary by the New Testament scholar, Richard Baukham:

"As prominent members of the early communities, probably traveling around the communities, they were doubtless active in telling the stories themselves. They may not usually like the male apostles, have done so in public contexts, because of the social restrictions on women in public space. But this is no reason to deny them the role of authoritative apostolic witnesses and shapers of Gospel traditions, since there need not have been such restrictions in Christian meetings and since they could witness even to outsiders in women-only contexts such as the women's quarters of houses." (Gospel Women, p. 302-303)

Jesus turned things upside down by proclaiming joy to the world through the Cross. Overcoming social prejudices, He raised to great prominence these humble women who would otherwise be unknown to the world. He granted them an integral role in proclaiming the Good News to the world that the sting of death has been overcome through His rising from the dead. As long as the Gospel is proclaimed, we will venerate and celebrate the memory of the Myrrh-bearing Women and rejoice with them.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

'The Fulfillment of all Creation'

Dear Parish Faithful,


"In the Orthodox Church everything begins and ends at the 'empty tomb'. Until His Resurrection, the Lord taught about eternal life, but with His Resurrection he showed that He is the eternal life. 

"The Church is the entrance to the resurrected life of Christ, the joy in the Holy Spirit. The expectation of the 'day without evening' in the Kingdom is the fulfillment of all animate and inanimate creation. The Pascha (passover) of the world from corruption to incorruption is realized in the Church. We can now cry aloud: 'Christ has risen and life reigns'!"

Found in From the Passion to the Resurrection - An Anthology of Hymns, Literature and Icons on the Resurrection of Christ

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Becoming Witnesses of the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,


"And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour." MK. 15:33)

"And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen." (MK. 16:2)

St. Mark the Evangelist is rather precise when he narrates that the Lord was crucified at the third hour (MK 15:25); that darkness fell over the land at the sixth hour (15:33); and that Christ died at the ninth hour (MK 15:34). According to the Jewish reckoning of time, that would mean that the Lord hung upon the Cross from about 9:00 a.m. (the "third hour") until 3:00 p.m. (the "ninth hour") on that first "Holy Friday." For the last three hours, then, "there was darkness over the whole land." 

This is not a weather report from the Evangelist. Rather, this unexpected darkness was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos (read as the OT reading at the Sixth Hour on Holy and Great Friday) that was a "sign" of great significance for the early Church as it began to reflect upon the "scandal" of the Cross:

"And on that day," says the Lord God, "I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all of your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day." (AMOS 8:9-10)

The fulfillment of this prophecy revealed the cosmic dimension and significance of the Lord's death on the Cross: all of creation mourned the death of the Son of God. Truly this was an awesome mystery! Yet, while at the time of the Crucifixion this very darkness may have intensified the solemnity of the Lord's death, it also intensified the starkness of Christ dying on the Cross seemingly abandoned by all, including His heavenly Father:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "E'lo-i, E'lo-i, la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (MK 15:34)

Again, the impression is that there was no one with Jesus in his hours of darkness upon the Cross. Yet, at the very moment of His death and seeming abandonment, St. Mark narrates that a Gentile centurion was the first to realize that this was not the case:

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (MK 15:39)

In addition, there was actually a silent presence of deeply sympathetic figures within some proximity of the Cross that St. Mark accounts for:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salo'me, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (MK 15:40-41)

Their role was of further great importance, for their vigilance allowed them to know where the tomb of the Lord was located:

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. (MK 15:47)

The presence of these faithful female disciples of the Lord - the women we now know and venerate as the Myrrhbearers - prepares us for the awesome revelation that will occur "very early on the first day of the week." (MK 16:2) The account of the discovery of the empty tomb; the angelic proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus to the women by the angel in the tomb; and the astonishment of the women is narrated in a rather succinct manner by St. Mark in only eight verses (MK. 16:1-8). 

When the myrrhbearing women arrived at the tomb carrying their spices in the hopes of anointing the dead body of Jesus, the darkness that will soon be lifted from their hearts was already being dispelled by another sign from the world of nature, for the women arrived "when the sun had risen" (MK 16:2). The cosmos had mourned the death of the Son of God; but it will now rejoice by "announcing" the Resurrection of the Sun of Righteousness. 

The movement from darkness to light is a powerful motif throughout the Gospels. The darkness may represent sin or the final horror of death. Jesus is the very presence of light, and that light is so strong that neither sin nor death can resist its strength. This is not simply a literary "symbol," but a living reality. St. Mark then narrates that the women "were amazed" when, upon "entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" (MK 16:5). This "young man" was clearly an angel. And it is this angelic being who will first announce the Resurrection of Christ with a definitive clarity that cannot be misunderstood:

"Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him." (MK 16:6)

The Jesus who had been crucified is the Jesus who was now raised from the dead. The risen Jesus is neither a "ghost" nor a "spirit." The Crucified One is now the Risen Lord - Jesus the Christ and King of Israel. The Father had not abandoned His Son; but rather vindicated the One whose resurrection will now be announced to the disciples/apostles, and through them to the whole world. As the biblical scholar, Francis Moloney has written:

The question asked of God by Jesus from the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" (MK 15:34) has been answered. Jesus has not been forsaken. Unconditionally obedient to the will of God (see MK 14:36), Jesus has accepted the cup of suffering. On the cross he is Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God (see MK 15:32, 39). God's never-failing presence to his obedient Son leads to the definitive action of God: He has been raised! The apparent failure of Jesus has been reversed by the action of God, who has raised Jesus from death. (The Death of the Messiah, p. 11).

St. Mark - and the other evangelists - recorded the events of that first and glorious Easter morning. The evangelists have preserved for us this precious - and exciting - eyewitness testimony of the myrrh bearing women to the empty tomb and the Resurrection of Christ. We accept their testimony and proclaim the same "Good News" to the world today through the Church. And we invite others to share that life - including "harlots and tax-collectors."

Yet, like the myrrhbearing women, we need to experience the Resurrection on a deep and personal level.  In and through faith, the "stone" that covers the entrance to our own hearts can be "rolled away" by the grace of God, and a new dawn can pierce the darkness of sin and death that leaves us as if living an entombed life hidden from the light.

This is the work of God. When the Resurrection of Christ is genuinely experienced in the very depths of our being, we may at first be silent because "trembling and astonishment" lay hold of us. (MK. 16:8) But when we recover our voice we may then joyfully share with others - through our faith and our lives - that CHRIST IS RISEN!

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thomas and The Beloved Disciple: Foreunners of Faith in the Risen Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,


PASCHA - The Sixth Day (Bright Friday)

This coming Sunday, the Second of Pascha, will concentrate on the movement from unbelief to belief by the Apostle Thomas (hence, Thomas Sunday, as we call it). Not only will Thomas become "believing," but he will make the greatest Christological confession of faith in the New Testament, when he proclaims to Jesus once he sees him and his sacred wounds: "My Lord and my God!" And yet Jesus will respond by telling him - and through him all later generations of Christians - that it is more blessed to believe without seeing, meaning seeing the risen Christ as did Thomas. We call that belief "faith," and faith has its own assurances.

The two texts below capture some of this based on a close reading of JN. 20:19-31, the Gospel passage that we will read on Thomas Sunday:

Even if Thomas did not actually touch Jesus before his act of faith, his insistence upon the need to investigate the wounds so physically and deeply adds immeasurably to the significance of his confession when at last it is made. His movement from faithless insistence on proof to an unparalleled expression of faith brings out the sense of divinity streaming from the One who has been wounded unto death in such a way. As in the foot washing at the beginning of the Supper, God is revealed here not only as incarnate but as the One who gave himself up to the most degrading of deaths in self-sacrificial love for the world. Before Thomas and the group of the disciples gathered in the room stands an unambiguous depiction of the truth that God is love.

If the coming to faith of later believers is different from that of Mary, Thomas, and the other disciples (who actually saw the risen Lord), it has a forerunner in the faith of the Beloved Disciple. As we have seen, when this disciple entered the tomb of Jesus, the separately placed and folded face veil was sufficient to serve as a sign of the resurrection: "He saw and believed" (20:8). True, his faith was based upon sight but it was sight of the grave clothes not sight of the risen Jesus. In his coming to faith without seeing the risen Lord the disciple foreshadows and models the faith of the later community. As in his presence at the foot of the cross and his taking Jesus' mother to himself, in this respect too he stands in for believers of all later generations.

From Life Abounding - A Reading of John's Gospel, by Brendan Byrne

Thursday, April 12, 2018

'The fire of Love is burning in all...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Fifth Day (Bright Thursday)

"O heavenly Pascha! ... by thee the darkness of death has been destroyed and life poured out on every creature, the gates of heaven have been opened, God has shown himself as man and humanity has ascended and become God! 

"Thanks to thee the gates of Hades have been shattered ... Thanks to thee the great banqueting hall is full for the marriage feast, all the guests are wearing a wedding garment and no one, having no garment, will be cast out... 

"Thanks to thee the fire of love is burning in all, in spirit and body, fed by the very oil of Christ."

Easter Homily inspired by Hippolytus

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'The shocking experience of the Easter witnesses...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Fourth Day (Bright Wednesday)

"The first witnesses... knew him as the one with whom they had traveled through Galilee, the one who had taught and led them. They experienced him as the one who had been crucified. Therefore the Risen One also bore the wounds of his passion in his body. He retained them as glorified wounds, because resurrection means that every instant a person lived bears fruit in eternal life with God. 

"That is why later Christian iconography always depicted the Risen One in his fully embodied self - with all the wounds that had been inflicted on him. That corresponded exactly to the shocking experience of the Easter witnesses, an experience they could never have invented."

- Gerhard Logfink

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Christ is Risen!

We greet you on the Great Feast of Christ's Resurrection!

You may wish to explore Fr. Steven's Meditations tagged with 'Pascha' and 'Resurrection' (two different groups, with some overlap).

Listen to Fr. Steven's two-part special on Ancient Faith Radio,  Living in the Light of the Resurrection, given at a women's retreat at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Jct, MI. Part 1 is titled, Theological and Historical Aspects of the Resurrection, and part 2 is titled, Living in the Light of the Resurrection.

And we strongly recommend (re)visiting Fr. Steven's article, 'The Resurrection of Christ and the Rise of Christianity'. As Fr. Steven writes,

"The historical aspect of our Christian faith means that any historical evidence that can disprove the resurrection of Christ would immediately and definitively undermine that faith. But no such evidence exists. On the contrary, it points us toward the genuineness and authenticity of those very claims."

Be sure to subscribe by email (at left) to receive Fr Steven's Meditations automatically. And join us for the Fifty Days of Pascha-Pentecost in the church!

Friday, April 6, 2018

'On the cross, death is crucified...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


"Holy Friday is the day of the Cross, yet without meaning that it is a day of mourning. Mankind crucifies the God-man. It is evil and hatred in its most absolute form: the creation kills its Creator. And it seems that evil has triumphed.
"It seems so but evil does not triumph because Christ responds with love. He does not offer opposition which would multiply and scatter the hatred, but submits to condemnation from love for the judges. He inoculates the appearance of evil with the vaccine of love and the cross, from being a symbol of humiliating death, becomes a symbol of life and salvation. For on the cross, death is crucified.
If the action of hatred is death, then the action of love is life. In loving mankind, Christ accepts the action of hatred and submits to the condemnation of death. This death, however, takes place on account of love, and thus, from this death, flows life. This death is the death of hatred; it is the death of death. And the cross is the symbol of life and the symbol of triumph. For this reason, Holy Friday is not a day of mourning but a day of celebration."

- From the Passion to the Resurrection - An Anthology of Hymns, Literature and Icons of Holy week

Monday, April 2, 2018

A different kind of King - 'The Victory of Palm Sunday'

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Feast of Palms - Liturgically, this splendid Feast Day is behind us for this year, but the meaning of each feast is always timely as it reveals something of great significance in the life of Christ and, by extension, in our lives. Here is an insightful reflection as to how Palm Sunday impacts our perception of life and where real strength is to be found:

Today, on Palm Sunday, we have fasted forty days, we are hungry, and if ever we face temptation from Satan, it is now. We face the temptation to gratify ourselves with worldly delights. We face the temptation to demand our liberty from everything and everyone that oppresses us. We face the temptation to fight for strength, and wealth, and power. This is the spiritual warfare that constantly rages on all sides, and today on Palm Sunday the battle is particularly violent.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, he faces these temptations as never before - all of those people cheering, crying out "Hosanna!," just begging him to be their worldly general, their commander, their emperor. 
Yet, Christ refuses to be the earthly king that people demand. Instead he will be revealed as a kind of king that the world has never seen, a perfect king, a heavenly king, a humble king, crowned with thorns, robes in the purple of mockery, and enthroned on the Cross.

Though Christ enters Jerusalem and is enveloped in a firestorm of temptation, he keeps his eyes on the Cross. This is the victory of Palm Sunday.

~ Father J. Sergius Halvorsen

Our Commitment to Holy Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

We have reached the saving passion of Christ our God.
Let us, the faithful, glorify His ineffable forebearance,
that in His compassion He may raise us up who were dead in sin,
for He is good and loves mankind. 
(Matins of Holy Monday)

I am trying to fit in one more book before Pascha, and that is The Final Days of Jesus by two PhDs and professors at a Baptist Theological Seminary(!). It is a day-by-day account, based on the Gospels, of Christ's last week before His Death and Resurrection. It is very well done and provides a good chronology and excellent background material that allows the reader to better understand the religious, cultural, political and social realities of 1st c. Jerusalem. All of this is based upon a close reading of the four canonical Gospels.

The authors actually refer to "Holy Week" in the process, and write about it very reverently, but as if this is something their fellow Baptist or Evangelical believers are not overly familiar with.

In fact, a kind of sub-text to the book is precisely to awaken a sense of Holy Week in their fellow (Protestant) Christians. That is not our problem! As Orthodox, we "live" for Holy Week and realize that it is the key week of our liturgical year, as it will culminate in the Lord's Death and Resurrection - the great paschal mystery. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov once wrote: "Holy Week sweeps the Orthodox believer along as if on a mystic torrent."

Our problem may just be observing Holy Week with focused attention and prayerful participation, as other demands of life impinge upon us in a never-ending flow of responsibilities - and distractions.

Therefore, I would simply like to provide a few pastoral suggestions that everyone can think about and perhaps incorporate into your daily lives as Holy Week unfolds:

+ One must first make a commitment to Holy Week and make it the priority for your respective households, regardless of how often you actually make it to the services. This is a week of strict fasting, and no other activities should impinge upon that. Your commitment to making Holy Week the center of your lives is synonymous with your commitment to Christ.

+ Try and arrange your schedules so that you are able to attend the services as well as possible. However, if you are not able to attend the services, it must not be because of something of "entertainment value;" or some other distraction that can wait for a more appropriate time. Be especially aware of Great and Holy Friday and Saturday. These are the days of the Lord's Death and Sabbath rest in the tomb. These are days of fasting, silence and sobriety. Respect that fact that you are participating in a great mystery - the mystery of redemption and salvation.

+ Parents, you may think of taking your children out of school on Holy Friday and attending the Vespers service in the afternoon. Other children have their "holy days" on which they may miss school; and we, as Orthodox Christians, have our own.

+ Reduce or eliminate TV and other viewings for the week. Keep off the internet except for essential matters. Struggle against smart phone distraction/app obsessions.

+ Be regular in your prayers.

+ Try not to gossip or speak poorly of other persons.

+ Choose at least one of the Passion Narratives from the four Gospels - MK. 14-15; MATT. 25-26; LK. 22-23; JN. 18-19 - and read it carefully through the week. There is also other good literature about Holy Week and Pascha that could be read. Actually, this is an incredibly rich resource page from our own parish website that offers extensive and intensive insights into the meaning of Holy Week.

+ If you have access to any of the Holy Week service booklets, read and study the services carefully before coming to church. This will deepen your understanding of that particular service's emphasis as Holy Week unfolds.

+ If you come to the midnight Paschal Liturgy, do your best to stay for the entire service, prepared to receive the Eucharist. It does not make a great deal of sense to leave the Liturgy before Holy Communion. You may or may not choose to stay for the meal to follow, but what matters is the Liturgy and the Eucharist.

Our goal, I believe, is to make of Holy Week and Pascha something a great deal more than a colorful/cultural event that is fleeting in nature and quickly forgotten. To encounter this "more" requires our own human effort working together with the grace of God so that the heart is enlarged with the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.


At the last of our Presanctified Liturgies for this year, we heard the following hymn:

I am rich in passions,
I am wrapped in the false robe of hypocrisy.
Lacking self-restraint I delight in self-indulgence.
I show a boundless lack of love.
I see my mind cast down before the gates of repentance,
starved of true goodness and sick with inattention.
But make me like Lazarus, who was poor in sin,
lest I receive no answer when I pray,
no finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue;
and make me dwell in Abraham's bosom in Your love for mankind.

Does this possibly sound familiar to anyone? Do you know of anyone that this hymn may be describing? Is this person well-known to you? If so, you may want to keep this person in your prayers so that he or she may one day - by the grace of God - be freed of these spiritually-harmful traits.

Friday, March 30, 2018

'Let us hasten, O believers...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Fortieth Day

"O Almighty Master ... grant unto us to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast ..."

We offered that prayer to God for the last six weeks at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. And now we have come to the end of the fast - or at least by the time we serve Vespers this evening, the "sacred forty days" of Great Lent will be over. Hopefully, during these forty days we fought "the good fight" as Orthodox Christians.

With Vespers this evening, we enter into the weekend of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday - two splendid feasts in which we proclaim Christ "the Vanquisher of Death." and as "He Who comes in the Name of the Lord" as the triumphant Son of God receiving his acclamation as "King of Israel." When Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, He anticipates His own resurrection only a week later; and he anticipates the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This is succinctly stated by Archbishop Kallistos Ware:

"The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ's own Resurrection eight days later, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day: Lazarus is the 'saving first-fruits of the regeneration of the world' ... Disclosing the fulness of His divine power, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, even though his corpse had already begun to decompose and stink." Lenten Triodion

As the following passage from St. Nikolai Velimirovich makes clear, Lazarus represents all of humanity awaiting the life-giving voice of the Lord:

"When the Lord cried: 'Lazarus!', the man awoke and lived. The Lord knows the name of each of us. If Adam knew the name of each one of God's creatures, how would God not know each of us by name? Oh, sweet and life-giving voice of the only Lover of mankind! That voice can make sons of God out of stones. How can it not wake us from the sleep of sin?" Prologue.

Fulfilling certain biblical prophecies (GEN. 49:1-12; ZEPH. 3:14-19; ZECH. 9:9-15) - such as we will read at the Palm Sunday vigil - Jesus will enter the Holy City acclaimed as the Messiah. Sadly, however, this acclamation is short-lived. We know that the entry into Jerusalem will inaugurate Holy Week and the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross. This "passion" is voluntary indeed, but the Cross was hard even for Christ to take up and then ascend so that we may be saved. The transition from the festal weekend to the somber character of Holy Week is nicely captured by a hymn from the Vespers service on Palm Sunday evening:

Let us hasten, O believers, moving from one divine festival to another; from palms and branches to the fulfillment of the august and saving suffering of Christ. Let us watch Him, bearing His sufferings voluntarily for our sake; and let us sing unto Him with worthy praise. crying, O Fountain of  mercy, O Haven of salvation, O Lord, glory to Thee. 

Every Orthodox Christian needs to make the necessary effort to accompany the Lord toward the Cross so as to fully appreciate the triumph of His Resurrection.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

How is the fulness of God's glory achieved in us?

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty Ninth Day

"He prays unceasingly who combines prayer  with necessary duties and duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfill the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only a part of it."

"How is the fulness of God's glory achieved in each one of us? If what I do and say is for the glory of God, my words and deeds are full of God's glory. If my plans and undertakings are for the glory of God, if my food and drink and all my actions are for the glory of God, then it is to me also that the words are addressed: 'The earth is full of his glory'."

"Every Christian, even if he lacks any education, knows that every place is a part of the universe and that the universe is the temple of God. He prays in every place with the eyes of his senses closed and those of his soul awake, and in this way he transcends the whole world. He does not stop at the vault of heaven bur reaches the heights above it, and, as though out of this world altogether, he offers his prayer to God, led by God's Spirit."

- Origen (†254)

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Announcement of the Incarnation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, March 25, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos. This great feast always falls during Great Lent, and when it falls on a weekday, is the only instance of having the full eucharistic Liturgy served for its commemoration. Clearly a sign of the feast’s significance. Thus, the Annunciation is something of a festal interlude that punctuates the eucharistic austerity of the lenten season. As it is, however, this year the Feast fell on a Sunday. 

Yet, because it does occur during Great Lent, this magnificent feast appears and disappears rather abruptly. It seems as if we have just changed the lenten colors in church to the blue characteristic of feasts dedicated to the Theotokos, when they are immediately changed back again! This is so because the Leavetaking of the Annunciation is on March 26. If we are not alert, it can pass swiftly by undetected by our “spiritual radar” which needs to be operative on a daily basis.

This Feast has its roots in the biblical passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, wherein the evangelist narrates that incredibly refined dialogue between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary (LK. 1:26-38). The angel Gabriel will “announce” the joyful news of the impending birth of the Messiah, and hence our English name of “Annunciation” for the Feast. However, the Greek title of Evangelismos is even richer in that it captures the truth that the Gospel – evangelion – is being “announced” in the encounter between God’s messenger and the young maiden destined to be the Mother of God. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit is “Good News” for her and for the entire world! 

Even though the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity in the flesh dominates our ecclesial and cultural consciousness, it is this Feast of the Annunciation that reveals the Incarnation, or the “becoming flesh” of the eternal Word of God. It is the Word’s conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary that is the “moment” of the Word’s enfleshment. Hence, the Church’s insistence that a new human being begins to exist at the moment of conception. The Word made flesh – our Lord Jesus Christ – will be born nine months later on December 25 according to our liturgical calendar; but again, His very conception is the beginning of His human life as God-made-man. The troparion of the Feast captures this well:

Today is the beginning of our salvation; the revelation of the eternal Mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.

Was the Virgin Mary randomly chosen for this awesome role? Was she compelled to fulfill the will of God regardless of her spiritual relationship with God? Was she a mere instrument overwhelmed or even “used” by God for the sake of God’s eternal purpose? That the Virgin Mary was “hailed” as one “highly favored” or “full of grace” (Gk. kecharitōmenē) when the angel Gabriel first descended to her, points us well beyond any such utilitarian role for her. 

On the contrary, the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is understood and presented by the Church as the supreme example of synergy in the Holy Scriptures. The word synergy denotes the harmonious combination and balance between divine grace and human freedom that can occur between God and human beings. God does not compel, but seeks our free cooperation to be a “co-worker” with God in the process of salvation and deification. In this way, God respects our human self-determination, or what we refer to as our freedom or “free will.” 

 It is the Virgin Mary’s free assent to accept the unique vocation that was chosen for her from all eternity that allows her to become the Theotokos, or God-bearer. This is, of course, found in her response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement, and following her own perplexity: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

This teaching on synergy finds its classical expression in a justifiably famous passage from St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ Homily on the Annunciation. The passage itself is often cited as an excellent and eloquent expression of the Orthodox understanding of synergy:

The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, Son and Spirit – the first consenting, the second descending, and third overshadowing – but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

We praise the Virgin Mary as representing our longing for God and for fulfilling her destiny so that we may receive the gift of salvation from our Lord who “came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man” (Nicene Creed):

Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee.
Hail, O pure Virgin; Hail, O Bride unwedded.
Hail, Mother of life: blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

(Dogmatikon, Vespers of the Annunciation)